Last month an elderly friend called me, wondering if I could help him and his wife cope with food for a couple weeks. They were living in assisted living after he’d had a stint in the hospital, but both were anxious to get back into their own home, a move scheduled for several weeks after our conversation. He thought that having good meals would smooth their transition and give them one less thing to fret about as they re-adjusted to life at home.
At the time I’d been fretting about my mom, a recent widow, wondering how she – sick of cooking after decades of feeding kids and husband – would respond to her new culinary regimen. To my surprise, Mom has grabbed the bit and run free, cooking and eating exactly what she likes whenever she feels like it, abandoning a lifetime of structured meals and regimented mealtimes. I’d been afraid she would abandon the kitchen and dwindle, but her appetite resurfaced, robust and eager to relish her favourite foods. It was the perfect metaphor for her approach to her new life.
So my worries on her account were needless, and I was able to turn my hand to cooking for our elderly friends. I was glad that they would be at home again, but I had a different set of worries about them: would they be safe? Would they be comfortable and competent feeding themselves? And what about after my help ended? How would they get their groceries? What support services had they arranged?
They assured me they had suitable support in place for their return. As for food, their preferences fairly closely matched how I cook for Dave and me – a modified Mediterranean diet, with lots of vegetables and olive oil, and fish on a regular basis. So it would be a fairly simple task to feed them. The biggest challenge was choosing dishes that would keep gracefully in the fridge for a couple days, then reheat well.
So I gave them a succession of salads, sourdough breads, braised dishes my foodie friend Gail has always called “stewy bits”, and for variety, some lovely Saskatchewan fish – pickerel braised with tomatoes, capers and olives; roasted steelhead smeared with local mustard and Canadian maple syrup. One day I decided to make cornbread, a wonderful breakfast dish and midday snack with honey and butter. To honour the cook’s rule of doubling down on labour, I reserved some to use for stuffing some farm-raised chicken breasts.
My mom had made cornbread as an after-school snack for me and my siblings when we were small, so I made extra into muffins and delivered them to her, wondering if she would remember and recognize the flavours. Well, of course she did, and launched into a reminiscence of life on Vancouver Island and her garden there. Amazing, how food triggers such strong memories. As for my elderly friends, they loved the cornbread, and the stuffed chicken as well, especially after I told them the story of school snacks. So first we eat, and then we can talk about your favourite afterschool snack as a kid.
Pull out your favourite black cast iron pan for this bread. Save leftovers to use as stuffing for chicken. Serves 6-8
1 ½ cups cornmeal
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
salt to taste
3 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground allspice
¼ tsp. hot chili flakes
1 cup corn kernels
2 cups milk or buttermilk
½ cup melted butter or vegetable oil
Set the oven to 375°F. Lightly butter and flour a 9” cake pan or cast iron pan, or line a muffin pan with papers. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl, then add to the dry ingredients. Mix just to blend, then gently pour into the prepared pan or muffin cups. Smooth the top and bake about 35 minutes, less for muffins, until set and golden. Serve warm with butter, honey optional.
1 ½ cups cornbread
4 green onions, minced
4 chicken breasts or thighs, boneless, skin on
olive oil to drizzle
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375°F. Crumble the cornbread. Whisk the egg and add to the cornbread with the green onions. Loosen the chicken skin to form a pocket. Tuck stuffing under the chicken skin and drizzle with oil, then season to taste. Roast the chicken pieces, turning once or twice, until juices run clear, about 40 minutes for breasts, longer for thighs, depending on size. Remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes, then slice across the grain and serve.